HUMAN RIGHTS FORUM: Taking a Stand for Reproductive Rights

By Nancy Northup*

This month signifies the importance of taking a stand for reproductive rights. Sixty-two years ago this December, the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, setting forth basic human rights that underpin every person’s ability to live with dignity, enjoy full and equal citizenship, and lead a healthy and fulfilling life. A woman’s reproductive rights lie at the heart of that promise. When a woman is denied the ability to decide when and whether to have children and the information and means to do so, she cannot direct her own life, protect her health, and exercise her human rights.

Over the decades, the Declaration and the international human rights treaties it has inspired have paved the way for significant progress in women’s reproductive lives. Countries and courts around the world have increasingly recognized that a woman must have quality access to reproductive healthcare, including contraception, pre-natal care, and abortion, in order to realize her human rights.

One impressive step forward recently came in Nepal. Just eight years ago the country prohibited abortion under any circumstance. But in 2002, Nepal’s King signed into law a bill that legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Three years later the Center worked with Nepalese partners to file a case arguing that the government had failed to implement the new law, and thus violated its human rights obligations. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered the government to improve access to abortion, including setting up an abortion fund for poor women sufficient to meet the need.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Health upended a longtime policy in which public hospitals detained women when they couldn’t pay their medical bills. The Center and FIDA Kenya had documented the pervasive abuse of pregnant women in the country’s public health facilities in 2007. The research showed that mothers and babies were forcibly held in hospitals for months at a time until they paid their fees. After persistent advocacy, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights petitioned the Ministry of Health, and last November, the agency ordered the release of all patients who had been detained.

In 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared the country’s blanket ban on abortion unconstitutional, asserting, “Protecting sexual and reproductive rights is a direct path to promoting the dignity of all human beings, and a step forward in humanity’s advancement towards social justice.” On this Human Rights Day, we should take inspiration from the Colombian Court’s words. It’s time that all governments guarantee the human rights and freedoms that women need to live with dignity and attain fulfilling lives, and it’s time that we demand it.

*Nancy Northup is President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global human rights organization that uses constitutional and international law to secure women's reproductive freedom. The Center has brought groundbreaking cases before national courts, U.N. committees, and regional human rights bodies, and has built the legal capacity of women's rights advocates in over 45 countries.


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